Susan Sontag’s work dissects the photographic medium, begging the question of what is worth photographing and what fails to merit this vein of technological recognition. Photography has, since its conception, had a problematic relation with truth, as does it carry out an ambiguous role in society and the art world alike. Beginning with the kalotype, which sought to redefine artistic delineation, to Baudrillard critique degrading the medium’s aspiration to be considered an art form- photography has evolved, changed and shaped the way the world is framed. Oftentimes, what is left out of the image is just as important as that which is captured by the lens. Susan Sontag’s discursive critique of the photographic medium sheds light on the complexities of what it means to hijack fragments of time. Furthermore, the politics of meaning and the consequences of representation are juxtaposed with the argument that photographs are merely pieces of life not vying to make a statement but merely expressing a point in time. Yet photography as a medium, as an art form, as an inherent aspect of our everyday life has an indisputable schizophrenic character that transforms according to its context.
Photography, unlike other art forms, is hinged on the dilapidated pretext that its relationship with reality, with truth, is innocent, pure, unadulterated. Susan Sontag supports this discourse to a certain extent, however I would be very interested to hear what she would have to say thirty years later in the age of Photoshop and digital retouching. Despite the fragile argument that photography is a tool of mimesis, the gaze must not be forgotten. Be that as it may, photography is a democratizing art form that transcends social stratification and is arguably accessible to society at large with obvious exceptions of course. These exceptions are oftentimes targets for the photojournalist abroad, who in desperation to expose to the indigenous, the unknown, the ‘other’ shoot down those who still subsist in conditions we fail to understand and in our incomprehension look down upon.
What I found particularly interesting about Sontag’s essay was her attention to the parallel growth of tourism and the proliferation of the public’s use of photography. Born in 1986, traveling has been tightly woven into my upbringing- I know nothing else. I grew up amid the onslaught of globalization, the conception of the Internet and the implications of the transnational flow of media. Yet, in the very year I was born I am told the two greatest imports into China were ‘Rambo’ and Aids- something to think about. The construction of artificial realties and the public fetishism of the image have consequences, as do the ethnoflow of people on the world stage. In short, we are living in the most exciting and unpredictable time- there is a sense of agency coupled with a loss of control.
As a photographer, I often forget what role I play as I cautiously work my way through shanty towns in India, where women invite me into there homes and nod their heads back and forth, back and forth– no words exchanged but enough said. I’ve seen the world from many angles and Susan Sontag’s article reminded me about how seemingly innocent yet dangerous it can be to see life through a lens. This work acknowledged the inexplicable possibilities tied to the medium, but also begged the question of what unantiscipated repercussions have yet to manifest. Just as painting has evolved (or devolved?) from the work of Di Vinci to that of Picassos (whose to define genius), photography has traveled along a similar trajectory. Even with the aid of hindsight, it is difficult to define the role of the photographic medium- is it to be art, a means of stealing fleeting momets, a democratization of representation or is its ability to distort reality rendering consequences that cannot be ignored? Trying to define the incessantly oscillating medium proves to be as difficult as nailing pudding to the wall. With this said, there are some indisputable truths that cannot be denied. Like Walter Bejamin’s article written now over eighty years ago, I would argue the Susan Sontag’s speculation, doubts, concerns and understanding of photography proves to as true today as it was the day she wrote it.